Desert River Sea: Portraits of the Kimberley

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The wrinkly-edged, northern tip of Western Australia is an environmental patchwork. Its radical ocean tides teem with crocodiles, pearl-budding oysters and terrible irukandji jellyfish. Seasonal cyclones dump freshwater into labyrinthine gorges. Further east, the land is arid and theatrical: ancient sandstone formations, ferrous soil, whispering desert grasses. Fifty thousand people live (among busloads of tourists) in towns like Broome and Derby, mining encampments, or on Country, days from any infrastructure. The name for this place of boabs, toadlets and zinc, ‘the Kimberley,’ is a misleadingly one-dimensional moniker for an utterly diverse region.

For six years, the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA) has provisioned artistic endeavour across the Kimberley, connecting with Kira Kiro, Mangkaja, Mowanjum, Waringarri, Warlayirti and Warmun art centres. The program has precipitated a web portal, professional development, and now an exhibition. Desert River Sea: Portraits of the Kimberley is encyclopaedic, bringing together commissioned community art projects alongside state and regional collection holdings.

Curators Carly Lane and Emilia Galatis embraced the hugeness of the project as they criss-crossed the Kimberley, wrangling artworks, deadlines and patchy reception.

“It was like working with Europe!” exclaims Galatis. “The Kimberley contains over 30 language groups and over 400 communities. You are negotiating with nuanced, disparate cultural narratives.” Spectacular polarity is present even in single communities. As Galatis points out, Fitzroy Crossing “supports five language groups, facilitates artists, community members, safeguards local history, and teaches English so people can broker native title and have a political voice.”

Desert River Sea doesn’t so much summarise AGWA’s venture, as describe the work of Kimberley artists now, looking forward. Artists at Warmun, for example, saw the exhibition as an opportunity to “make themselves relevant, engage young people and use new materials to tell their stories,” said Galatis. Three generations collaborated to produce six animations that vivified the paintings of senior artists. “Video speaks to the artists’ lived experience,” says Lane. “It shows how digital media and traditional knowledge coexist in remote communities.”

Sonia Kurarra, Noonkanbah Highway 2018 (detail), synthetic polymer on cow hide, 140 x 268 cm. Courtesy Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency.

Cultural consolidation was the focus at Warlayirti. Once home to a busy glassmaking hub, the studio’s kilns had lain dormant for years. “The artists were excited to rediscover glass,” says Lane. Vivid glass panels made by the Yukenbarri sisters illustrate local bush foods and echo traditional Balgo painting techniques.

“The Mangkaja collaboration is like a microcosm of Desert River Sea,” explains Galatis. “The artists worked independently to narrate a larger history.” Station Stories includes Mervyn Street’s bristly hides which illustrate stockman’s work, John Prince Siddon’s hand-scribed memoir recounts losing a leg while mustering, Eva Nargoodah’s bush-dyed Dingo Flour bags recall the upcycling of everyday materials. “They’re describing a pre-referendum and pre-wages era,” says Lane. “Mervyn says ‘you see cows and sheep but I see history,’ because to him, history is a contact narrative.”

In a third gallery space, six curators from Aboriginal arts centres have selected work from their own community collections.

Most are ambidextrous arts workers who run websites and studios, write, research and curate, yet rarely get the kudos of titles like ‘curator’ or ‘coordinator.’ Lynley Nargoodah’s selection of work by deceased Mangkaja artists uses the theme of water to unpack the political status of the Fitzroy River.

Desert River Sea will plunge visitors into the complexity and aspirations of the Kimberley. The show is part of the 2019 Perth Festival and several hundred artists and community members are represented. Together they emphasise the value of self-determination, not just for artists, but for all members of Indigenous communities, and in turn for Australian cultural wellbeing. As Lane puts it, “choice is freedom.”

Desert River Sea: Portraits of the Kimberley
Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA)
9 February – 27 May

Sheridan Hart